Here's the bummer news about New Fantasyland, the $425 million expansion at Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Until the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a steel family coaster, opens in 2014, the 21-acre area devoted to princess pandemonium is going to feel underwhelming. It's promising, inspiring, even jaw-dropping; it's just not immersive. Not yet at least. • There are still myriad barriers and scaffolding always bringing you back to Realityland. And there's just not a whole lot to do. Nevertheless, in a bid to out-Potter Universal Orlando, New Fantasyland "soft-opened" to the public Nov. 19, with the grand opening set for Dec. 6. • Of course, this is Disney, so many of the details are how'd-they-do-that technical marvels. And the vistas — forested hills and looming mountains, a rocky coast for mermaid frolics — are lovely, "forced perspective" architecture with that subtle cartoon bent. • Times food critic Laura Reiley sampled Be Our Guest, a new restaurant in Beast's castle (yes, the one that serves beer and wine for dinner). See her review on Page 34. Here are a few other cool things not to miss in New Fantasyland:
When Disneyland opened in California in 1955, the animatronics were already stuff no one had ever seen before. But for all my years geeking out at Disney parks and seeing the advancements in robot fluidity (Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean is almost creepy real in its Deppness), I can honestly say I've never seen something so oh-no-way cool as the Lumiere re-creation in Enchanted Tales With Belle, one of only a few main attractions open in New Fantasyland. It blends old-school audience participation (not really a show, not really a ride either) with showoff special effects. The chatty candelabra helps narrate some make-believe between a flesh-and-tulle Belle and guests inside the princess' cottage; the all-aflame critter's arms move flawlessly, almost snake-like.
Enchanted Tales also has two other dazzling moments: a magic mirror that somehow both expands and separates (I couldn't see any seams in the glass), allowing you to walk through it; and a sassy talking Wardrobe, which helps assign roles to guests for the ensuing play-acting. That Wardrobe freaked me out, but a cast member smirked at my amazement: "Just wait until you see Lumiere." She's not kidding.
The Hair Chair
There's always been a sly undercurrent of grown-up yuks at Disney World, from the gravestones at the Haunted Mansion to the punnery you hear on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover ("Paging Mr. Tom Morrow.") New Fantasyland is an incredibly earnest place, but Gaston's Tavern, a macho tribute to the burly villain in Beauty and the Beast, is a snack shack in punchline form. Gaston, of course, uses antlers in all of his decorating. But the heart of the booze-free pub is a CGI fireplace, next to which sits the hunk's photo-op throne, a hideous king-size chair made of animal fur. Kinda gross, kinda comfy too.
Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, a musical "dark" ride for the kiddies, first opened at Disney's California Adventure last spring. I've been on that one, and I remember not loving it, perhaps because it was housed in an ornate boardwalk-style theater, which lent nothing to the experience. The Little Mermaid at New Fantasyland is roughly the same thing — you board a giant clamshell and toodle through scenes from the namesake flick — but I liked this one a lot more. Perhaps because this time the queue winds you through caves and under waterfalls, setting the aquatic mood much better. Or perhaps because the ride stopped for a few minutes when I was right in front of a robotically menacing Ursula, the tentacled sea witch, another feat of whiz-bang engineering.
By the way, next to that ride is Ariel's Grotto, where kids can chat up the swimming redhead.
Adjacent to New Fantasyland is Storybook Circus, which takes the place of the old Mickey's Toontown. Here you'll find the Barnstormer, a retooled Goofy-themed coaster (very tame); a small waterpark; a meet-and-greet called Pete's Silly Sideshow; and most important, not one but two Dumbo rides, plus an interactive queue for kids to blow off steam and stop nagging their parents. The park was slammed when I went the day after Thanksgiving, but because of the double pachyderms, the wait time for the slow-boarding attraction was a short 20 minutes. That's a blessed relief from the Dumbo slog of old.
Seducing the wallets of sucker parents and Disney enthusiasts everywhere is merchandise exclusive to New Fantasyland and Storybook Circus. The relatively quaint Bonjour! Village Gifts has fine dinnerware embossed with Belle and her beau ($16.95 per plate, $14.95 per wine glass) plus cheekily designed T-shirts. (I like the one that says "Relationship Status: Single" and shows Gaston gazing into a mirror.) The relatively enormous Big Top Souvenirs swaps Mickey ears for Dumbo's pink floppers. Cute stuff — and it's going to cost me a fortune when I take my daughters.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.